Tokyo-based photographer and journalist Tony McNicol recently contacted me to share his photo series from Terada Honke Sake Brewery located in Chiba Prefecture. I found these photos beautiful and to me they really conveyed the essence of life at a brewery. It’s hard, honest work, but it’s also not rare to see people smiling and enjoying life. Take a look at this Gallery of Tony’s sake brewery photos from Terada Honke:


Terada Honke sake brewery, Jun 2009 – Images by Tony McNicol

You can learn more at TonyMcNicol.com
Tony was also recently interviewed by the Japan Times Online.

Tomita Brewery

Tomita Brewery

Ok, Pop Quiz!!! Name one attraction of note in Japan’s Shiga Prefecture… Stumped? Well, I was too, until my visit to outstanding Tomita Brewery, located in the small town of Kinomoto, Shiga Prefecture.

Tomita Brewery is an exceptionally small brewery that has attained global reach when they began exporting their sake to the United States. From Kyoto I had to take 2 local trains to get deep into Shiga countryside and was met by Shichihonyari Executive Director, Mr. Yasunobu Tomita. Tomita-san is a young guy whose enthusiasm for sake is impressive. There is certainly no shortage of hard work for anyone running a sake brewery, but Tomita-san has taken on these challenges with self assurance and confidence.

shichihonyariThe “Seven Spearsmen” Brand
Tomita-san’s The flagship sake is Shichihonyari, which translates as the “seven spearsmen”. This name honors 7 samurai warriors who helped secure victory for the famous Japanese War Lord Hideyoshi in 1583. In the US today, we have access to two delicious Shichihonyari sakes. First is their most famous export the Shichihonyari Junmai. This sake uses locally grown Tamazakae sake rice. It’s fantastic both chilled and heated and offers a robust, truly artisan hand crafted sake experience. Not to be missed. Oh, and you can’t beat the cool Samurai design on the label.

Another sake we can get from Tomita-san is the Shichihonyari Shizuku Junmai Daiginjo. An exquisite Shizuku or “drip” sake, it’s an elegant treat of light fruits on the palate a wisp of crispness that gives it a grounded backbone and good balance.

Tomita-san with His Vintage Fune

Tomita-san with His Vintage Fune

Artisanal Spirit
The Brewery tour began with a walk through of the facility. One of the first things that I noticed was Tomita Shuzo was kickin’ it old school. They were not using the latest computer driven gizmos to make their sake, but had simple old fashioned tools that allow them to craft sake more by hand. One of my favorite examples of this is their “fune” or sake press. The Tomita family has a vintage wooden fune that is beautiful to look at and helps their sake keep a true artisanal spirit. It’s true… they make their sake the old fashioned way… they earn it.

shichi_signAfter a tour of his brewery facility Tomita-san took me out to lunch and for a visit to a nearby rice field. The day was spectacular and I got stunning views of beautiful Lake Biwa, circling hawks, and the low rolling hills of Shiga. Fantastic!

I can’t thank Tomita-san enough for hosting me on this wonderful day in Shiga. I won’t soon forget all his kindness. Also thank you to the entire Tomita family for such outstanding hospitality. I hope I can return someday, but until then, I’ll keep giving my pop quizzes about Shiga to help spread the word of the “Seven Spearsmen”. Kanpai!

Mr. Ujita, Omachi Rice and me

Mr. Ujita, Omachi Rice and me

Arriving in Kyoto always brings back special memories for me. this was my original destination on my very first trip to Japan. It goes without saying that it’s a beautiful and historic city, but on this visit I was able to discover another aspect of Kyoto that endeared the city to me even more.

Today I was the guest of Mr. Hiroshi Ujita, the president of Tamanohikari Sake Brewery, located in the Fushimi district of Kyoto. Tamanohikari is translated as “brilliant jade” What’s in a name? “Tama” signifies the polished gem and the spirit of the sun goddess, and “Hikari” stands for “brilliance and prosperity”. This is a very well known brand in Japan and several of it’s sakes are also widely distributed here in the states.

Omachi Junmai Daiginjo

Omachi Junmai Daiginjo

Omachi
You can’t talk about Tamanohikari without a mention of Omachi sake rice. Omachi is sometimes called the “grandfather” sake rice as it was used in cross breeding a new and very popular strain called Yamada Nishiki. Omachi is not used extensively in a world dominated by Yamada Nishiki, however, the folks at Tamanohikari Brewery have a strong belief in the particular charms of Omachi rice and use it widely in their sakes. Omachi is more difficult to grow than other rices as it grows taller, but dedicated farmers keep the faith and continue to cultivate and Breweries like Tamanohikari continue to make distinctive and delicious sakes from Omachi rice.

Omachi is used in some of the wonderful Tamanohikari sakes that are for sale in the US. I’m thinking particularly of their flagship Tamanohikari Junmai Daiginjo Omachi, a bewitching and elegant, yet grounded junmai daiginjo. Another favorite is the Tamanohikari Yamahai Junmai Ginjo, which pairs beautifully with umami laden dishes and is a foodies best friend. delicious! In addition, the Tamanohikari Tokusen Pack Junmai Ginjo

Rice Milling Machine

Rice Milling Machine

Historial Yet Alive with Activity
Upon my arrival at Tamanokikari Brewery, I was warmly greeted by Mr. Ujita and their master Toji Tsuneo Ueda who both guided me on a tour of the Brewery facility. After we put on our lab coats and hair nets, we marched around the block through the residential neighborhood to the milling facility. Ujita-san showed me the many computer controlled milling machines that run around the clock and process large quantities of milled rice and rice flour every day. I learned a bit how to read the computerized control panel and monitor the target and current milling rate. A marvel of engineering!

After walking back to the main facility, we forged right ahead with the rest of the tour. The Beautiful brewery building was obviously historical, yet alive with activity and fully operational. The beautifully well worn wooden beams supporting the roof expecially caught my attention. One beam was what seemed to be a solid tree trunk. After inspecting the koji room, I got a rare treat as Ujita-san lead me to a magnafying glass to look closely at the koji mold growing on the rice. It was really astounding to see for myself what I’d so often seen in pictures, real hair like strands of mold growing on the rice! (um, You know you’re a sake geek when… you get excited by koji mold)

Carefully Tended Moto

Carefully Tended Moto

Hello, Moto
Next, I toured the room where the moto or yeast started was being made. The kurabito or brewery workers obviously lavished a lot of attention on this starter. it’s the genesis of the main mash and rightfully deserves a lot of attention. Tamanohikari uses buckets of ice lowered into the moto to control the temperature which is of utmost importance during the yeast cultivation.

In the brewing facility, I was invited to peer into the sake brewing tanks themselves. Both Ueda-san and Ujita-san explained about watching the bubbles produced by the mash as a way to read the progress of the brewing process. We looked at a tank that had a roaring foam and also a tank that had a few light bubbles each working as a road map of sorts for the Toji, helping him decide on next steps for every batch. The hefty aromas wafting up from the moromi (main mash) were quite startling. Ujita-san encouraged me to really take a big whiff. It smelled of ripe fruit salad with notes of cooked rice and rising bread.

Sake Mash

Peering Down into the Brewing Vat

After the tour, I luckily was invited to taste a range of Tamanohikari brews. Not only did the sakes taste fresh, but I felt I better understood “omachi” flavor and why Tamanohikari Brewery is so dedicated to this rice. It defines their signature flavor and gives a wonderful structure and grounded depth of flavor to all their delicious sakes. My deep and sincere thanks to Ujita-san for the the tour of his brewery and Kyoto, and for his dedication to helping people like me better understand sake. Also, special thanks to Ueda-san and all the workers at the brewery for making me feel so welcome.

I felt so honored to see the inner workings and living history of such an esteemed sake brewery such as I did today. Taking an in depth look at this one place not only expanded my appreciation for Tamanohikari, but also for Kyoto and for Sake itself. To paraphrase the Grinch, “…In Kyoto they say, his love for sake grew three sizes that day.”

TAMANOHIKARI Sake Brewing Co., Ltd.
545 Higashisakai – Machi Fushimi-ku Kyoto 612-8066 Japan
TEL: 81-75-611-5000 FAX: 81-75-601-0004
www.sake.com

Beautiful Marumoto Brewery

Beautiful Marumoto Brewery

My first trip to visit Marumoto Brewery can only be described as spectacular. Makers of the famous Chikurin Brand of sake, Marumoto brewery is nestled beautifully in the low rolling hills of Okayama Prefecture.

Brewery President, Mr. Marumoto explained that the brewery was founded in 1867 at the end of Edo period and has been producing sake since then. However, this brewery isn’t just famous for it’s sake. The wooden framed brewery complex is registered as an “Important Cultural Property” by Japanese goverment, similar to the National Register of Historic Places here in the US.

Growing Your Own Rice

Marumoto-san Explains Sake Rice

Marumoto-san Explains Sake Rice

The vast majority of sake breweries in Japan buy their sake rice from farmers, but Marumoto brewery is going the extra step and growing its own. Sake really gets its start in the rice field, so Marumoto-san started our tour right there.

We visited several of his rice paddies around and toured some fields that had different levels of fertilzer, and some that were certified organic. The more I saw, the more I realized how dedicated Marumoto-san was to creating the perfect rice for his sake.

Sake Rice Steaming

Just Steamed Sake Rice

Just Steamed Sake Rice

After our tour of rice out in the field, it was time to hit the brewery and see what could be made with this the beautiful rice in a master’s hands. The buildings on the brewery compound are old with a stunning use of old wooden beams like you rarely see. This was a place where it is quite easy to envision what life at the brewery could have been like in the 19th century.

Rice Goes Into the Tank

Rice Goes Into the Tank

We started looking at the rice being washed, soaked and steamed. After steaming, the rice is lifted by hydraulics and scooped by a kurabito onto a cooling conveyor belt below. This cooling step is important. Rice needs to be cooled before going into the koji room or before going into the mash.

That is what was happening on the day I was at Marumoto Brewery. Once collected after this brief cooling, the rice is transported to the main mash vat. How do that do that? Like many other breweries, they use a flexible tube to blow the rice along. This tube gets stuck through the floor and right into the top of the vat on the floor below. After the rice addition, the mash gets stirred into the vat using a long pole. Maruomoto-san and his staff demonstrated how this mixing was done and I tried it myself, but I was a sorry excuse for a kurabito. Maybe after a few months of practice could I get it down pat.

In addition to the steaming and adding rice to the main mash, I also got to see the Koji room, the mash pressing area, the milling room and also the bottling and storage facility. It was especially interesting to see the large refrigerated room where the Chikurin Hou Hou Shu Sparkling Junmai sake undergoes its second fermentation in the bottle. A lot of New Year’s Eve toasting starts right here!

Dinner with a Surprise
A report on my visit to Chikurin wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the very special dinner Maruomoto-san invited us to. At the start of our meal, a rice paper screen opened at one end of the banquet room, and we were treated to a demonstration of “Shiki Hocho”, or the centries old and elaborate fish carving ritual that allows the chef to use a knife and chopsticks but not touch the fish directly.

Viewing the Rare Art of Shiki Hocho

Viewing the Rare Art of Shiki Hocho


All the guests at dinner sat in stunned silence as the ritual proceeded and every movement was deliberate and beautiful. Before I knew it, the sea bream on the table was carved into an elaborate shape of real beauty. This method of fish preparation was done for both the emperor and shogunate starting as early as 895 A.D. I was extremely impressed by the beauty of this and I felt so fortunate to have seen it myself. I know this is something that even few Japanese have seen in person. Am I a lucky guy, or what?!.

Chikurin Sakes

With Mr. Marumoto

With Mr. Marumoto

Okayama was impressive in so many ways and my time with Marumoto-san at Chikurin was even more so. I was able to see up close and in person where these fantastic sakes are made. From the bestselling and gently sweet Hou Hou Shu Sparkling Junmai mentioned above and the rose and hibiscus infused Hana Hou Hou Shu Sparkling Junmai to the incense inspired deep flavors of Chikurin Fukamari Junmai

From the once pasteurized, light and lovely Chikurin Karoyaka Junmai Ginjo to the rich and wonderfully silky smooth texture of the Chikurin Taoyaka Junmai Daiginjo, I saw first hand how these sakes are a true labor of love. I can’t thank Maruotomo-san enough for the wonderful hospitality and tremendous learning during my time at Chikurin. I had experiences I will always remember! Thank you!

Reflecting back on this time, I can’t help but think how much more enthusiasm and appreciation I have for sake with each brewery I visit. It’s magic what they do at places like Marumoto Brewery. Thanks for the magic you bring to all of us.

Chikurin at Dusk

Chikurin at Dusk

Hakkaisan Brewery In Niigata

Hakkaisan Brewery In Niigata

My next stop on my Japan 2008 tour was a special one! I was headed for the birthplace of the sake that sparked my interest in Nihon-shu in the first place: Hakkaisan Brewery in Niigata.

Longtime readers of my site will know that it was Hakkaisan’s Junmai Ginjo sake that got me so addicted devoted to sake. Hakkaisan is a well known brand that is widely distributed in Japan and abroad, but still very much hand crafted with great attention to details and quality.

Hakkaisan Ginjo

Hakkaisan Ginjo

There are three main sakes to look out for, all of which are simply fantastic. One of my very favorite sakes in the whole world is the Hakkaisan Ginjo. This is an alcohol added sake that has just a touch of richness and delightful floral character in the aroma while still staying true to it’s lighter style Niigata heritage.

Hakkaisan Honjozo is another delicious brew. This sake is more hearty and can pair well with many foods and it also delightful when gently warmed. And of course, as I mentioned above, the Hakkaisan’s Junmai Ginjo is the first premium sake I ever had, and it caught my attention with good reason. It’s crisp and clean style is really elegant and a delight to drink anytime.

Needless to say I was totally jazzed about visiting this brewery and seeing how Hakkaisan did their thing. I took an early morning train into Niigata’s Urasa Station and was picked up and whisked off to Hakkaisan headquarters for a full day consisting of a tour of the brewery facilities lead by Hakkaisan’s Toji, a meeting with Hakkaisan Production staff and finally a lunch with Hakkaisan President Mr. Nagumo.

Hakkaisan Mountain

Hakkaisan Mountain

My first impression of this area was it’s astounding natural beauty. Everywhere I turned, I saw truly beautiful vistas of stunning Niigata mountains crowned by the sacred eight peaks of Mount Hakkai. I couldn’t help but envision the area covered in layers of snow as it is so often pictured in the winter months. This beautiful landscape is home to some beautiful sake and I was about to see how it was made!

Brewing Sake at Hakkaisan

Brewing Sake at Hakkaisan

The brewery tour of the Hakkaisan facility started in their new production facility which allowed visitors to watch the various stages of sake production through windows set up at strategic points along the process. I was lucky enough to see several stages of the brewing process right up close. Just as I had seen in other breweries, this one was built on a vertical concept with the upper floors being at the start of the process and with the rice and sake working it’s way down. For example, milling and steaming on the top floor, brewing on the next floor down and pressing on the floor below that. That way you are never fighting gravity to transport your rice or sake. Ingenious!

Koji Making Kurabito in Action!

Koji Making Kurabito in Action!

After visiting the large milling facility, I was taken to the area where the rice is washed and steamed. Next I saw the wood paneled koji room. Luckily when I was there, I got to see the kurabito in action. They swept into the koji room with the precision of a S.W.A.T. team and with seeming laser-guided acuity, proceeded to turn the rice by hand so that each grain had a chance to get exposure to the koji mold being propagated here. They played it cool, but I think they may have been just as surprised to see a gaijin peering into the koji room window as I was to see them.

After the brewery tour, I had a wonderful sit down meeting with the production staff. We were able to exchange ideas and I explained the current state of the sake market in the US. After some wonderful questions back and forth, it was off to meet Hakkaisan President Mr. Nagumo.

With Mr. Nagumo, President of Hakkaisan

With Mr. Nagumo, President of Hakkaisan

Nagumo-san greeted me warmly in his home and I found him to be young and energetic with a lot of charisma. His beautiful mother prepared a lavish luncheon of local dishes that was simply delicious. I was bowled over by the spread and was even more surprised to learn we would be drinking the Hakkaisan competition sake to go along with the food. This is not sold to the public, so this was a rare honor indeed. Needless to stay I enjoyed every minute of it. We spent the afternoon talking sake and culture and about New York and the USA. I really had a wonderful time. But before I knew it, the train was calling and I was needing to head back to the station. I can’t thank Nagumo-san enough for hosting me and to everyone at Hakkaisan for their hospitality. Also, a special word of thanks to Makiko-san for helping all day with translations which made my stay that much more meaningful.

I won’t soon forget my fantastic day at Hakkaisan. Visiting this place kind of brought my whole experience in the sake world full circle. I was able to see for myself where the sake that first sparked my interest in Nihon-shu, was actually made. After seeing the beautiful countryside of this region and the beautiful people who lovingly craft this sake, it’s no mystery to me why I fell head over heels for Hakkaisan all those years ago.

Asahi Shuzo Brewery in Nagaoka City,  Niigata

Asahi Shuzo Brewery in Nagaoka Niigata

Next on my whirlwind trip to Niigata was a visit to Asahi Shuzo, makers of the world renowned Kubota Brand of Sakes. I was given a tour of the brewery by Mr. Masamichi Sanjo, who is in the export sales division at Asahi Shuzo.

Kubota Facility

Kubota Facility

Sanjo-san met me at the Nakaoka station in Niigata and drove me to the brewery for a tour. The outside of the Asahi Brewery was solid and seemed like the “Fortress of Solitude”. The walls were tall and smooth concrete. It really seemed like the Fort Knox of sake, secure, stable and solid. You won’t be getting in unless invited. Luckily, I was invited! With the beautiful low mountains of Niigata as the back drop, this was impressive to say the least.

Inside, I could see that the Brewery was clean, efficient and beautiful. Not just the facility itself, but also the size was impressive. As Sanjo-san gave me the tour, from start to finish, I got the sense that this place as run like clockwork and had a tremendous scale of operation.

First, I got to take an up close look at the moto (yeast starter) and even got to try my hand at mixing the moto! Yes, please note the hairnet and coat. It’s a really good look for me!

Mixing the Moto

Mixing the Moto

Moto tanks were smaller in scale but still a sight to behold. The Moto is also known as the “yeast Starter” and is one of the corner stones of the sake production process. A small batch of sake is made at this point under exacting temperature control with an incredibly high yeast content.

This is the incubation chamber of sake and it is understandably lavished a lot of attention. This yeast starter ends up in the main tank and kicks off the brewing process giving the yeast a fighting chance to survive and create lots of alcohol in the main mash.

Brewing Room Tanks

Brewing Room Tanks

Especially impressive was the view of the brewing tanks. Each silver lid you see is the cap to a large brewing tank that holds fermenting sake. All the tanks were monitored daily with specific instructions and observations written about each batch. A wonderful attention to detail that reflects itself in their delicious sake.

Speaking of their sake, Kubota makes some heavenly sake that is available for sale both in Restaurants and retail in The USA. After our tour, Sanjo-san took me out to expore Nagaoka and for a wonderful dinner to taste local food with delicious sake.

Enjoying Kubota Sake with Sanjo-san

Enjoying Kubota Sake with Sanjo-san

Now the Kubota brand is incredibly well known in Japan and is a flagship brand of sake if ever there was one! Starting with Kubota Senju Tokubetsu Honjozo, we have a delicious and well crafted honjozo that is a dream to pair with grilled fish and the like. Next I enjoyed the fantastic Kubota Hekiju Junmai Daiginjo. With a halo of lightness and delicious fruits on the palate, this sake is a treasure and oh so easy to enjoy. Last but not least, I marveled at the superior and delicious Kubota Manju Junmai Daiginjo. Manju is really a crown jewel of the kubota line and a top of the line product in Japan and the USA.

What a day! As I headed back to my hotel, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face! I had such a fantastic experience and felt so lucky to have seen Asahi Shuzo. My sincere thanks to Sanjo-san and family for the wonderful day in Nagaoka! The tour and hospitality were simply amazing. I can’t wait to return and see more of beautiful Asahi Shuzo and Nagaoka!

With Mr. Endo of Kikusui

With Mr. Endo of Kikusui

My next stop on the Japan 2008 tour was taking me by Shinkansen to northern Niigata Perfecture, specifically to Shibata city, home of Kikusui Brewery. As you may know, Kikusui imports the much loved Kikusui Funaguchi Honjozo and the delicious Kikusui Junmai Ginjo.

I was met at the train station by Mr. Takeshi Endo, Export Salesman for Kikusui. Mr. Endo would be my guide for a fun filled day at Kikusui! Let me just say that my tour of Kikusui turned out to be more than I expected. As fate would have it, Kikusui Brewery was putting on a yearly Sake Rice Harvest festival for the local community on the day of my visit. Not only was I able to visit this fantastic brewery, but I also got the chance to harvest organic sake rice… by hand!

Beautiful Organic Kikusui Sake Rice Field

Beautiful Organic Kikusui Sake Rice Field

The day started with a welcome for the families and community members who came to the event from Brewery President Mr. Takasawa, who I met in January at Sakaya. We were then given a quick tutorial on cutting and binding rice stalks by hand using a deadly looking hand-held sickle. Next, we had some hilarious calisthenics that were lead by the youngest Kikusui office workers. Then it was time for the main event! Endo-san got me a sickle and then off to the rice paddy!

Kikusui Rice Harvest in Full Swing

Kikusui Rice Harvest in Full Swing

Let me tell you right now, harvesting rice by hand is hard work – and true to the “lazy American” stereotype, I pooped out long before anyone else including many kindergarten age kids running around collecting rice bundles with gusto and having a blast.

In about two hours, the entire rice paddy was harvested! phew, time for a break. Kikusui arranged for a fantastic concert by the Pataya Beach Boys. They were great and I even found a clip of them playing on YouTube if you want to give a listen! The crowd at Kikusui loved it and even chanted for an encore.

Beautiful Vintage Masu on Display at the Kikusui Sake Museum

Beautiful Vintage Masu on Display at the Kikusui Sake Museum

After the concert, Endo-san gave me a tour of the Kikusui brewery and museum. They have several brewery buildings and I was lucky enough to tour the organic brewery facility. It was a beautiful building newly constructed to strict earth-friendly standards. The museum was a vast and beautiful collection of Sake paraphernalia that made the ebay collector in me swoon just a little.

Next is was time to eat! Our hosts at Kikusui whipped up a wonderful lunch topped off by something new to me… I got to try hand pounded fresh mochi for the first time!

Pounding Rice Into Delicious Mochi

Pounding Rice Into Delicious Mochi

If you’ve never seen mochi being made, it’s a quasi dangerous process of pounding rice using wooden mallets until the rice becomes a delicious glutenous paste.

So there I was, in the middle of the Niigata countryside, eating fresh sake-rice mochi, drinking fantastic kikusui Sake – I was in 7th heaven! I am so grateful to Mr. Takasawa-san for hosting me and certainly also to Mr. Endo who took such good care of me and showed me around all day long. Without a doubt, this is a day I will remember for the rest of my life. Now, please pass the mochi.

Beautifully preserved samurai houses in Kanazawa City, Ishikawa-Ken

Beautifully preserved samurai houses in Kanazawa City, Ishikawa-Ken

Day 5 in Japan started early with a trip out of Tokyo. I met Fukumitusya Brewery export salesman Mr. Yageta at Tokyo Station and we boarded the train for Ishikawa Prefecture. Although he’s usually stationed in Tokyo, he was kind enough to travel with me all the way to Ishikawa.

Fukumitsuya Brewery is located in Kanazawa City. This small town on the sea of Japan is sometimes known as “little Kyoto” because of the number of historical attractions found here. Given it’s proximity to the sea, Kanazawa is known for it’s fish and our first stop upon arriving was for lunch and we had some of the freshest sashimi i’ve ever tasted. This town blossomed in the Edo period and was the center for many traditional japanese artisan work such as kimono, lacquer and gold leaf. The beautiful streets of romantic samurai houses attracts Tourist from all over the world.

With this tradition as it’s backdrop, Fukumitsuya is a large and well known brewery in Japan making 8 different BRANDS of sake:

Fukumitsuya produces five different brands of sake in Japan:

With Mr. Toshio Kawaguchi Outside the Brewery

With Mr. Toshio Kawaguchi Outside the Fukumitsuya Brewery

Upon arriving at the Brewery, I was introduced to Mr. Toshio Kawaguchi, VP of the Brewery. I got a hairnet, lab coat and special boots to wear for the tour. Hey- it’s a look!

Before we even got inside, Kawaguchi-san stopped and have me a taste of the Brewery’s “Hundred Year Water” which flowed freely in a fountain outside the Brewery entrance.

The idea behind this is that as water melts from nearby Hakusan Mountain, it takes 100 years to slowly trickle through the land to reach the Fukumitsuya well, getting necessary minerals along the way. I was able to taste this water and it’s delicious. They even bottle it for sale. Evian – watch out!

100 Year Water

100 Year Water

The brewery tour of Fukumitsuya was impressive. Designed in a vertical set up over several floors, the sake making started on the top floor with the yeast starter, then went down through the floor to the brewing tanks and then down another floor for pressing. Makes perfect sense!

I was especially impressed with the brewing tanks. Kawaguchi-san pointed out that the bottom of the brewing tanks was curved, not flat. This allowed for better circulation of the mash during brewing. You gotta keep that yeast and koji moving! These tanks also had a water cooled jacket wrapped around them to allow the Toji to precisely control the temperature.

Fukumitsuya is a large scale brewery to be sure, but it doesn’t lose the sense of being hand crafted. This brewery is run as what is known as a “Junmai-gura” or Brewery that only produces Junami-shu. No alcohol added to anything. In their opinion “pure rice” is the way to go. Junmai vs Honjozo is a debate for the ages, but Fukumitsuya makes a compelling, and delicious case for Junmai-shu.

Fermentation Tanks Curve at the Bottom to Allow for Circulation

Fermentation Tanks Curve at the Bottom to Allow for Circulation

There are four of these Junmai-shu sakes that are currently available for sale in the U.S. Let’s take a look:

After the Brewery tour we had a tasting and then a visit to the gorgeous Fukumitsuya retail shop and tasting bar. The retail shop was stunningly beautiful. Sake and sake serving sets were on display and a tasting bar was in the back if you wanted a sample.

My visit to kanazawa and Fukumitsuya was just beautiful. I felt like the luckiest sake blogger in the world! I can’t thank my hosts enough for the beautiful visit to Kanazawa. Yageta-san, Sakai-san, Shinano-san and Kawaguchi-san, I’ll never forget your hospitality. Thank you so much!

Stunning Fukumitsuya Sake Shop in Kanazawa

Stunning Fukumitsuya Sake Shop in Kanazawa

yamauchi.jpgDay 4 of my Japan trip takes me on another sake adventure. This 2008 sake tour is starting to pick up speed and the shinkansen has left the station.

This time, I’m headed to Ishioka city in Ibaraki Prefecture to visit Takaaki Yamauchi, the president of Huchu Homare Brewery, makers of the much loved Wataribune and Taiheikai brands of sake. I was lucky enough to get my Sake Sibling Melinda to join me for one more sake escapade!

milling.jpgTravelling out of Ueno station in northern Tokyo, Melinda and I met in the morning and headed out into the countryside on the local train for our one hour trip to Ibaraki Prefecture. The view outside my window slowly morphed from city congestion into rural openness and I began to feel myself relax.

Huchu Homare Shuzo President Mr. Yamauchi met us at the station and we were soon pulling I to the courtyard of his beautiful brewery compound. After arriving, we were welcomed into the historic main building and were served a welcoming tea and sweet by Mr. Yamauchi’s delightful mother.

We proceeded to discuss sake in a wonderful mish-mash of japanglish that gave both Yamauchi-san and myself opportunities to practice speaking each others native languages. However, I was happy to have Melinda there as a helpful translator when the conversation got more complex! (thanks Mel!)

sensei.jpgThen it was on to the Brewery tour! One of the things that struck me about this place was its wonderful beauty. To me the buildings seemed centuries old and the turn of every corner afforded a new photo op. With a gorgeous day as our backdrop, Melinda and I were brought first to the milling area. The milling machine was impressive and Yamauchi-san could read it’s needs like a master. Like a formula one race car driver, he adjusted the knobs and wheels to keep the rice flowing at optimal speed. The one thing was that the milling room was dusty. No fear, they had the perfect solution. A quick blast with a high pressure air hose gun by the exit left us free of any stray rice flour. And it was kinda fun, too.

Our next stop was the rice processing area where the wataribune sake rice was soaked and steamed. Kurabito were already at work at this when we arrived. An overhead flexible tube used vacuum power to suck the rice from the steaming area directly into the brewing tank. pretty neat! Yamauchi-san began to explain the brewing process in English using a wonderful metaphor of progressing through school. The yeast, rice koji were brought through Kindergarten, Elementary, Jr. High and High School. It seems Yamauchi-san is a born teacher. He lead us through the entire production process with an addition lesson in sake chemistry, where he showed us the lab where samples from each sake batch are analyzed.

Wataribune does indeed brew some sublime sake. Here is a quick look as some of their best offerings:

Wataribune Junmai Daiginjo
Wataribune 55 Junmai Ginjo
Wataribune Junmai Daiginjo Nama
Taiheikai Tokubetsu Junmai

soba.jpgAfter the fantastic tour, we all “graduated” to a wonderful lunch in the rolling foothills of Ibaraki. Yamauchi-san took us the the most delightful soba restaurant run by a husband and wife team. The food was magnificent and the view out the window was stunning. I really enjoyed this trip to Ibaraki and can’t tell you how much I appreciate Yamauchi-san taking the time to give us such a wonderful day. Since his Brewery is so close to Tokyo, Yamauchi-san often jokes with New Yorkers to visit his brewery by jumping out of their plane with a parachute 10 mins before landing in Tokyo to visit his Shuzo. Well, after this visit, Yamauchi-san should look up every now and then… I may just take him up on the offer!

kumpai.jpgAfter a lovely morning sake tasting and tour at Oomuraya Brewery, the intrepid Shizuoka tour guide extraordinaire, Robert-Gilles led Melinda, Etsuko and myself onward to another Shizuoka sake maker.

Kumpai Brewery is a small sake brewery with a big heart. It’s located in Shizuoka City and we got there by cab from the Shizuoka train station. This tiny operation is run by a father and son team: Senji and Shigetoshi Ichikawa.

ichikawa.jpgThe entire camera-wielding sake blogger summit crew descended on Kumpai Shuzo with a thousand questions and snapping a thousand pictures. Despite this mini invasion, Ichikawa-san Sr. and Jr. were enthusiastic and incredibly welcoming.

After a detailed tour of the brewery facility, we were invited to taste! We had a wonderful sake that Melinda and Etsuko promptly ordered for themselves! This particular sake was the Kumpai Momiji Junmai Ginjo Hiyaoroshi. The Ichikawas served this lyrical fall nama with the perfect autumn pairing, momiji.jpgnamely Ginan or roasted ginko nuts. Ginko nuts never held that much appeal to my American palate, but I really turned a corner when eating them with this lovely Hiyaoroshi. I’m now a believer so bring it, Ginko!

Momiji Junmai Ginjo Hiyaoroshi is a sake that tastes hand crafted, soft and luscious. And after having the privilege of seeing the brewery, I understand just how hand crafted it really is. Indeed, even the bottle labels are produced Shigetoshi-san on his computer! This dedication to making fantastic sake even on a small scale is really impressive.

A Special thanks to Robert Gilles for arranging this visit to Kumpai. I was so happy to be able to see a smaller brewery making fantastic stuff and I know I would never have the chance to taste this in the States. A great opportunity! It also doesn’t hurt that Robert-Gilles gifted me a Kumpai One cup! I brought this back to the U.S. and can’t bring myself to drink it because it is so special and rare. RG- thanks a million and I’ll let you know when I crack open that Kumpai One Cup!

To see more about Kumpai don’t miss Melinda’s Kumpai Post, and of course Robert-Gilles’ Shizuoka Sake blog is a treasure trove. So, what’s left to say? well, let’s hear a big KANPAI for Kumpai! (sorry, I couldn’t resist!)

wakatake.jpgMy next day in Japan was too full to fit into one blog post, so here is Act I! Of course, I’m referring to the 2008 Sake Blogger’s Summit held this year in beautiful Shizuoka Prefecture. Forget the G8, we’re talking about the Sake 4: Etsuko from Tokyo Foodcast, Melinda from Tokyo Through the Drinking Glass, our Sake Summit host, Robert-Gilles of Shizuoka Sake, and yours truly.

wakatake_bottling.jpgEtsuko, Melinda and I all met in Tokyo and took the Shinkansen to Shizuoka. Robert Gilles met us on the platform and we jumped into the local train and headed off to our first stop of an action packed day: Oomura Brewery, the makers of the well regarded Wakatake brand. Arriving at Oomuraya brewery, we met the 6th Generation President, Mr. Matsunaga and the Brewmaster, Mr. Hibino. Hibino-san then started us out with a tour of the brewery facility.

We were first shown the rice milling area – Oomuraya Brewery takes great pride in the milling of their own rice as this allows them to be meticulous about quality. All the buildings at this facility were historical and I could just picture sake being made here for centuries.

In addition to the milling facility, we saw the areas for yeast starter, steaming, pressing brewing and storing sake. One interesting little room with lace curtains was off the main brewing area. hibino.jpg Much to my surprise, I was told by Hibino-san that this small room is used for sleeping! Brewery workers must monitor the koji making process overnight and need to bunk down in the brewery regularly!

After the fantastic brewery tour, we were invited back for a tasting. This was a unique opportunity to taste all the major Oomuraya sakes side by side. It’s a beautiful lot and here is what we tasted:

I was ecstatic to try this line up as I have had a few of these that made it to New York, but I was in Japan now! The Junmai Daiginjo is a sake I know well and it was as clean and easy drinking as ever. The Honjozo Genshu and Junmai Genshu side by side was quite an experience. I found the Junmai to have wonderful balance and a clean taste. The Honjozo conveyed a nice sense of umami on the palate with a mild aroma. * “Sake Rock” was a full-bore full-alcohol genshu that had the coolest label ever! I would drink this one on the rocks, but we can’t get it in the states.

Mr. Matsunaga was incredibly gracious and welcoming. I came away understanding more deeply than ever before that for Mr. Matsunaga and everyone at Oomuraya, brewing sake is more than just making a beverage but it is continuing an ancient Japanese cultural tradition. Also, it was clear that as they reach to export their sake to the US and elsewhere, they still remain a local brewery and cherish the local community. The trip to Oomuraya was fun and exciting and… at this point in the day it was barely Noon! More from Shizuoka in the 2008 Sake Bloggers Summit Act II…